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Feste romane [Roman Festivals]

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Respighi
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Emanuel Ax, piano Sep. 17 - 19, 2003
© Richard Freed
Feste romane (“Roman Festivals”), completed in 1928, was given its premiere on February 21 of the following year by the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York under Arturo Toscanini. Walter Hendl conducted the National Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of this work, on March 7 and 8, 1967; Leonard Slatkin conducted the most recent one, on October 5, 1998.

The score calls for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, piccolo clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 buccine, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, bass drum,  tambourine, rattle, sleighbells, cymbals, triangle, gong, glockenspiel, 2 bells, xylophone, 2 tavolette, mandolin, harp, piano, organ, and strings. (The tavoletta is a small resonator, or sounding board. The buccina is an ancient Roman trumpet with a circular tube, its bell resting on the performer’s shoulder; Respighi indicated that the buccine in this score may be replaced by trumpets, and that option is taken in the present performances.) Duration, 25 minutes.

Feste romane is the final part of Respighi’s spectacular trilogy of symphonic poems celebrating the Eternal City, its predecessors being The Fountains of Rome (1917) and The Pines of Rome (1924). As the culmination of this series, it is somewhat the longest and clearly the most ambitious of the three works—and by no means the most subtle. In this case the customary translation, “Roman Festivals,” seems a pale image of the grand-scaled panorama Respighi sought to evoke. While some of his tone poems are designated “symphonic impressions” and allude to the moods or impressions stimulated by various scenes or events, rather than the events themselves, Feste romane is unreservedly graphic in its descriptiveness. Respighi declared that this work represented his “maximum of orchestral sonority and color”; with it he brought to an end not only his Roman triptych but a very prominent sector of his creative activity.

“With the present constitution of the orchestra,” he wrote, upon completing this work, “it is impossible to achieve more, and I do not think I shall write any more scores of this kind. Now I am much more interested in small ensembles and the small orchestra.” In the eight years left to him, his only compositions for orchestra were transcriptions of music by earlier composers, among them the last of his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances (the one for string orchestra) and some arrangements of Bach organ works (these definitely for large orchestra).

In The Fountains of Rome Respighi had used four of the city’s landmarks as focal points for a portrayal of the city at different times of day, and the same format was followed in The Pines of Rome. His procedure in Feste romane adheres to the same sort of musical outline, but in this case, instead of 24 hours in Rome, the four sections of the work are sound-images of public celebrations, ranging from antiquity to the composer’s own time. As he had done for the two earlier works, Respighi made his descriptive intent clear in a note printed in the score:
I. CIRCENSES. A threatening sky hangs over the Circus Maximus, but it is the people’s holiday: “Ave Nero!” The iron doors are unlocked, the strains of a religious song and the howling of wild beasts mingle in the air. The crowd comes to its feet in frenzy. Unperturbed, the song of the martyrs gathers strength, conquers, and then is drowned out in the tumult.
II. IL GIUBILEO. Pilgrims trail down the long road, praying. Finally, from the summit of Monte Mario appears to ardent eyes the gasping spirits of the Holy City: “Rome! Rome!” A hymn of praise bursts orth, the churches ring out their reply. [This movement is built largely on the 12th-century Eastern hymn Christ ist erstanden—“Christ is risen.’]
III. L’OTTOBRATA. The Ottobratta [October festival] in the Roman castelli covered with vines; echoes of the hunt, tinkling bells, songs of love. Then in the tender twilight arises a romantic serenade. [The serenade, after the last elfin horn calls fade in the distance, is played by a mandolin, against the gentlest of twilight backgrounds.]
IV. LA BEFANA. The night before Epiphany in the Piazza Navona: a characteristic rhythm of trumpets dominates the frantic clamor; above the swelling noise float, from time to time, rustic motifs, saltarello cadenzas, th strains of a barrel-organ in a booth, and the call of a barker, the harsh song and the lively stornello with its expression of the popular sentiment—“Lassàtase passà, somo Romani!” [“Let us pass, we are Romans!”].